There are also many memoirs, indie and otherwise, that stay with the reader after the last page is read. Mirror Talk—the 2012 IndieReader Discovery Award winner for Memoir—is something special.
Author Barbara Alfaro takes us to another place to hear her story. We sit in the sand, warming our upturned faces and follow her down Rockaway Beach. We watch a girl grow up and encounter life’s hilarity along the way. Alfaro kindly sat down with us to chat about Mirror Talk and how to make a magical memoir.
Barbara Alfaro: Thanks, Keri. I was on Cloud 9 for days!
KE: Right from the start of Mirror Talk we are transported into your childhood world. Can you still see it clearly? Any hints for preserving memories accurately?
BA: I remember my childhood easily and the memories are vivid. I know my memories have rearranged and edited themselves over the years but I think what is most genuine in them remains so. Old photographs help spark memories and songs from another time.
KE: I went to Catholic school too. Tell us about a random nun memory, I know you have them!
BA: In grammar school, a nun asked me to buy her a bottle of perfume. Her request shocked me because I thought all nuns were like Jennifer Jones in “The Song of Bernadette.” I couldn’t imagine Saint Bernadette handing me crushed cash and whispering the name of a perfume and where to buy it. The name of the perfume was “Midnight Blue.”
KE: New York is the backdrop of Mirror Talk. Obviously memoirs are writing what we know, but was it easy to recall specific details, locations and dates in your life? Is it important to be exact?
BA: Details and locations were easy but dates took some researching. I think it’s important to try to be exact but if it turned out I couldn’t be, I admitted not recalling something.
KE: Your lovely book describes characters entering and leaving your life rapidly (which we love) and quite a hectic time as a playwright and director. Give us an example of what your day would look like during the wackiest times.
BA: The “wackiest” times were when I was studying acting in New York. I had a part-time job as a receptionist in a law firm, attended acting classes evenings, and was a hatcheck girl on the late shift at a steak house. Mornings at the law firm, when I disconnected one caller who’d been on “hold,” I answered an incoming call “Uh-oh!” Later, in speech class, I was told my diction was good but I needed to watch my R’s (enunciate them clearly), and around Christmas time, a gentleman patron of the steak house wanted to give me $50 and a bottle of perfume (it wasn’t “Midnight Blue”). I accepted the perfume from him but not the cash. I think my work/study schedule was supported by five or six hours sleep but I was in my twenties when all is possible.
KE: I took a class in grad school called “The False Memoir” which was all about how memoirs are not all true and much fiction is autobiographical. We studied greats like Gertrude Stein and Anzia Yezierska. Interestingly, this theory was often proven. Do you agree/disagree? Did you embellish details for any of the characters or are they all simply real-life people?
BA: My agreeing or disagreeing with that theory would depend on whose memoir I was reading. A Moveable Feast by Hemingway is a great read with probably equal amounts of fact and fiction. Are You Somebody by Nuala O’Faolain is heartbreakingly truthful and I think there is something noble about that kind of in your face honesty. All the characters in my memoir are real people.
KE: What is your favorite part of the book?
BA: Remembering Goddard College. It was very like total immersion in a language at Berlitz only it was total immersion in poetry. And the people were so great. We were all crazy about poetry and crazy about one another. It was heaven. Many of the poems I wrote at Goddard are in First Kiss, the Kindle edition of my poetry.
KE: Moment during writing that made you laugh out loud?
BA: “Make Mine Cognac” always makes me laugh out loud.
KE: Is it difficult to write about a personal story of illness? It’s seen by many writers as a tough topic to approach from the other side of the pen. Do you think so?
BA: Yes, writing about my illness was a tough call but I didn’t see how I could leave it out. I used to compartmentalize my writing – poetry was a place for the pain and my essays were filled with humor. But in writing my memoir I noticed I was blending sadness and joy and that seemed more honest.
KE: How long did you work on Mirror Talk? Tell us about your journey. Did you try traditional publishing before going indie?
BA: About two years. I didn’t even consider approaching traditional publishers. Right from the start, I knew I was going to self-publish. I had a very negative experience concerning a play I wrote called Dos Madres. Even though I received a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award for this play and it was given a staged reading by a professional theater in Washington, DC, I could not interest agents or producers in reading it. I could not even get the courtesy of letter or email from them. For years, I kept writing the perfect query letter and getting the perfect no response. I did not want a similar and frustrating experience with my book.
KE: Have you had any unexpected responses to the book; say from a family member or someone from your life you hadn’t expected to hear from?
BA: A sports columnist for a major newspaper liked the book a great deal. I’m always delighted when a man likes my book.
KE: If you could give your teenage self a piece of advice, what would it be?
BA: I would tell my teenage self to invite my best friend Blanche Smith home for dinner – and never let her out of my life.
KE: Do you plan to stay indie? What do you think you would do if you got a big offer from a major publisher?
BA: Right now, I plan to stay indie but if I got that “big offer” I would consider it.
KE: If you were stranded on a deserted island, what three things would you need to have with you?
BA: A Bible, The Complete Works of Charles Dickens, and a very comfy chair-bed.
KE: What’s next for you? Do you have another book in the works?
BA: I’m working on a novel called Roses and Vices and I am enthusiastic about it.
Thanks, Barbara for chatting with us! We look forward to the new book. Want more from Barbara Alfaro? Check out www.BarbaraAlfaro.net